The True Crisis of the Humanities

The Humanities are in crisis, as readers of Quadrant will be only too aware. What was once the jewel in the crown of scholarship in Western Civilization has become a pedagogical sheltered workshop in our universities, totally dedicated to promulgating anti-Western, anti-Liberal, anti-Democratic, and (literally) anti-Human ideologies. This situation has recently attracted the attention of the media and the Federal government, which has proposed changes to course fee structures that are intended to dissuade students from enrolling in what have become useless if not in fact pernicious degrees in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences – sending students into the streets instead of into careers.

Unfortunately, the intensity of the reaction to this appalling situation has obscured the true nature of the Humanities and their once illustrious history as the scholarly arm of Humanism, stretching back seven centuries as a field of study, and over 2000 years as a project to lay claim “to the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome” (to quote Edgar Allen Poe’s famous words from To Helen).

This heritage has been forgotten in the increasingly furious reaction to the ideological coup that has taken place over the past 50 years. What has happened in the Humanities is that the field has been ‘hollowed out’, leaving only a shell; the traditional disciples have either been driven out or completely debauched intellectually, and a whole range of new ideology-infested subjects have set up home in their place. Perversely, while living comfortably in this ‘Humanities’ shell the tenured practitioners of these subjects have adopted as their mission the complete denunciation and destruction of the Humanities and Humanism, along with Western Civilization in general. This is the true crisis of the Humanities.

Even some defenders of the Humanities misunderstand the tradition and where its strengths lie. For example, in an attempted defence of the field, Luke Slattery tries to bolster his case by declaring that “I don’t believe humanism is an exclusive product of Western civilisation. And I think, on balance, that there is a strong case for an under­graduate program in multicultural humanism anchored in the African, Asian and Middle Eastern traditions.”  (“Don’t dim the light of learning: the case for humanities”, The Weekend Australian, 27/6)

This is wrong on a number of counts, but it particularly betrays the fundamental failure of nerve that has undermined the Humanities and their once impregnable position in the universities. It seems to have been conceded that Humanism is a possession of many civilizations and that the Humanities can’t stand on their own as a product of Western Civilization, but must be reinforced and have their existence justified by importing elements from elsewhere, in this case from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. This claim falls apart once the intellectual traditions of these regions are actually explored. Moreover, it is actually quite condescending, as if these other cultures should be gratified by our appropriation of what they might regard as their intellectual treasures.

However, it is also a defense mechanism, prompted by the outrageous ‘cancel culture’ attack on proposed courses in Western Civilization. “It’s alright,” our apologists are saying, “we’re terribly inclusive; it’s not just the West, there’s room in the Humanist tradition and the Humanities for everyone”. It’s also prompted by the Left’s relentless campaign of denigration of Western Civilization, Humanism and the Humanities. For example, it is claimed that Humanism maintains an “ancient continuity” between Classical Greek civilization and Nazism (Tony Davies, Humanism, 2008). From a radical perspective, attacks on Humanism are commonplace, typically denouncing it as an ideological construct lying at the heart of Western culture, disguising various forms of monstrous oppression. Consequently, its more reticent defenders embrace a sort of inclusive academic multiculturalism, looking for allies and hoping for safety in numbers.

This is not the right path to take. What is required is an unapologetic reassertion of the Humanist Tradition and of its central place in Western Civilization. Let us now look at what we have lost in the Humanities, and then at what has come to take its place, hollowing out the once great tradition and living comfortably within its shell.

For reasons of conciseness, we will focus on the diametrically opposed visions of humanity, the self, and the individual that lie at the centre of both Humanism and its deadly anti-humanist ideologies.

Historically, Francesco Petrarca (1304-74) is generally regarded as the father of Humanism, although the seeds of that revolutionary program had been sown earlier, as Classical texts began to filter into Europe in the 11th Century. Petrarch (right) began reflecting on human potentiality and the ‘this-worldly’ meaning of life in the 14th Century, and saw how scholars could draw upon the cultural treasures of Classical Civilization to augment and develop the Christian Tradition. This quest was taken up in the 15th Century by scholars of the Italian Renaissance, and Humanism’s subsequent influence is one of the main reasons the Renaissance is viewed as a distinct historical period, a time of rebirth of Classical learning after the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ lamented by Petrarch.

It is important to note that “Renaissance humanism was not … a philosophical tendency or system, but rather a cultural and educational program which emphasized and developed” the study of the Humanities. (Oscar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains, 1961) Taken together, these disciplines constituted a package that empowered scholarship and personal transformation. Its guiding concerns included the dignity of the human quest in this life, the privileged place humanity occupies in the universe, the importance of the various Classical systems of thought and other forms of ancient wisdom, an interest in the natural world, and a profound new emphasis on the individual.

This revolutionary program was identified, of course, by Jacob Burckhardt (left) in his literally epoch-defining work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). This focuses particularly on ‘the Development of the Individual’ and ‘the Revival of Antiquity’, their interaction, along with the rise, flourishing, and destiny of Humanism in the period.

The term itself was introduced (as humanismus) by 19th-Century German scholars to reflect the Renaissance emphasis upon Classical studies in education taught by the umanisti, i.e., scholars of Classical literature. ‘Umanisti’ is derived from the studia humanitatis, which consisted of such disciplines as grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy, and was derived in turn from the Greek ‘paideia’. This etymology emphasizes how the Humanities pursue a scholarly and educational ideal that stretches back millennia to the very origins of Western Civilization. (This is why it is bizarre to cede ‘joint ownership’ of the Tradition to “Africa, Asia, and the Middle-East”, as our apologists are prepared to do.)

This educational ideal was realized in the form of the ‘Liberal Arts’ (artes liberals). These are those seven intellectual disciplines that it was considered essential for free citizens to master if they were to participate fully in civic life. These were divided up into two groups. Initially, in Antiquity there were three disciplines — grammar, rhetoric, and logic – which constituted the Trivium. In the Middle Ages a further four were added – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy – which constituted the Quadrivium.

These two groupings have very interesting characteristics that have largely been forgotten, to our great detriment. It has been observed that the Trivium focuses on those disciplines that are concerned with the realm of mind, while the Quadrivium is concerned with the realm of matter and space. Moreover, these disciplines involve intransitive activity, i.e., “the action begins in the agent and ends in the agent, who is perfected by the action”. This may be contrasted with utilitarian disciplines like the fine or manual arts, which involve transitive action, i.e., “the action goes out from the agent and ends in the object produced”, usually producing something of cultural or commercial value. (Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetorical, 2002) Such a distinction between inwardly and outwardly directed actions reflect the emphasis on the perfection of the individual that defined the traditional Humanities, and that we are emphasizing here.

Indeed, the discovery and transformation of the self was central to Renaissance Humanism. As Kristeller observes, it was driven by a fundamental “tendency to express, and to consider worth expressing, the concrete uniqueness of one’s feelings, opinions, experiences, and surroundings”. It hearkened back to the spiritual exercises of ancient philosophy analyzed by Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life, 1995):

All spiritual exercises are, fundamentally, a return to the self, in which the self is liberated from the state of alienation into which it has been plunged by worries, passions, and desires. The ‘self’ liberated in this way is no longer merely our egoistic, passionate individuality: it is our moral person, open to universality and objectivity, and participating in universal nature or thought.

In this fashion, Humanism explored subjective experience, promoted individual self-knowledge, and sought to identify and communicate the foundational values and practices of a life well lived. Letters, memoirs, confessions, and biographies became popular genres (taking inspiration from the incredible 12th Century Letters of Abelard & Heloise). The pedagogy of Humanism therefore aimed not just at the transmission of knowledge but above all at the development and eventual self-realization of the individual, with the expectation that a vibrant and virtuous society would flow from this.

From this fundamental orientation, the humanist curriculum evolved and ramified over the centuries through the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, and the Age of Imperialism. Other disciplines were added, including history, Greek, and poetry, and it became the foundation for elite education in Europe, particularly for the governing classes, the clergy, and the professions, gradually spreading to the middle classes and other social strata. The Humanistic ideal of a Liberal Arts education persisted until the middle of the 20th century.

III. What happened then? At that time, the Humanities and Liberal Arts were widely represented in Britain, Europe, and in America, e.g., by the so-called ‘Great Books’ courses, including Literature Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, and Western Civilization survey subjects. Australia tended to follow the British lead but somewhat similar survey courses existed, e.g., for a short time at the fledgling La Trobe University before it was engulfed by student radicalism.

Meanwhile, secondary schools had very comprehensive Humanities curricula, culminating (e.g., in Victoria) with demanding year-long senior subjects in English Literature (concerned, e.g., with ‘The Great Tradition’),  British History, Modern European History, Eighteenth Century History, Classical Civilization, Ancient History, Australian History, and Renaissance and Reformation History. Even in state high schools it was common for the senior masters to routinely wear academic gowns, oversee specialist subject libraries, and seek to mentor promising students into Humanistic academic studies.  

And, out in suburbia, hardcover 54 volume editions of the Great Books of the Western World were being sold door-to-door, along with the equally mammoth Encyclopedia Britannia, which lasted in print from 1768 to 2010, offering about 40 million words on half a million topics. These monuments to the Humanist faith in the value of knowledge were so expensive that they were offered on ‘high purchase’ terms, and their purchase by hard-pressed working families was a testimony to the preparedness of ordinary folk to invest in that knowledge.

But it was the height of the Cold War, the West was entering the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties, and innumerable new universities were opened up for the Baby Boomers. Quite abruptly, this entire realm of Humanist pedagogy and Humanities scholarship came under concerted attack. Avowed communists of various allegiances, radical New Leftists, anti-Western ideologues, exponents of identity politics, feminists, self-styled victims groups, radical environmentalists, multiculturalists and advocates of political correctness came to form a formidable ‘Progressive’ coalition that depicted the traditional courses as instruments of Western imperialism, technocratic oppression, elitism, sexism, racism, and ecological destruction. Academic gowns were hastily put away as a new generation of teachers took over.

Consequently, the Great Books courses largely vanished from curricula and Western Civilization courses were demonized, as we have seen in Australia with the Ramsay Centre’s Western Civilization initiative. Traditional History and Literature subjects atrophied in the universities and virtually disappeared in Australian schools as sophisticated stand-alone subjects possessing a canon of work that was systematically taught and studied. In their place were substituted ideologically-loaded courses ‘taught’ via project work that pillages the Internet, and addressing social issues, favoured victim groups, popular culture, and ‘inclusive’ and non-offensive meandering courses presented as ‘World History’, etc.

This ideological assault found acute expression in the changing attitudes within literature and history, where the ‘high culture’ concerns of the Renaissance and the Humanist Tradition were dismissed as elitist ‘minority interests’. In Literature the impact was well described at the time by Veronica Brady (‘Critical Issues’, 1988):

Literary texts [now] mattered not because they were concerned with questions of value or even because they were manifestations of individual consciousness … It was not consciousness but the ways in which consciousness was produced and structured that mattered. The notion of an autonomous world of the individual imagination was nonsense, as were the ideas that people shaped their own lives and think their own thoughts.

This approach was formalized as ‘theory’, and its dominance was exemplified by such gargantuan anthologies as the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, which runs to some 2850 pages of frequently impenetrable prose extracts. It declares explicitly that the study of literature is inherently political, must take its lead from new social movements, must provoke scepticism about society’s institutions and values, and must  be prepared to engage in political ‘resistance’ – i.e., the Revolution begins in the tutorial.

This shift reflected the tremendous influence of neo-Marxist theory, social history, feminism, postmodernism, and post-colonialist studies, described so presciently by Keith Windschuttle in The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past (1994). And so, as another leading historian observed:

It is no longer the fashion to write so much about those minority interests. Humanist thought, Reformation theology, scientific discovery, and overseas exploration have had to give way … The professionals now like to spotlight magic, vagrancy, disease, or the decimation of colonial populations. (Norman Davies, Europe: A History, 1996)

The Renaissance itself quickly fell victim to this shift from the sublime to the mundane. Once, entire volumes were routinely devoted to it but soon a prominent history of the past millennium offered no specific discussion of it in a work of over 800 pages (F. Fernandez-Armesto, Millenium, 1995), while another massive history of Europe provided only a two page subsection (J.M. Roberts, A History of Europe, 1996). In Australia, where  there was once an entire Year 12 subject on Renaissance and Reformation History, a new history curriculum offered the era only as an elective for 13-14 year-olds at Year 8 level, competing for their attention with Medieval Europe, the Vikings, and the Ottoman Empire.  Meanwhile, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment were barely mentioned. This represented the suppression of the most important periods in modern history. Is it any wonder that the Humanities sank into crisis?

This was especially so as this iconoclastic Intelligentsia refined its anti-humanist counter-ideology. This coalition of intellectuals, academics, teachers, ideologues, writers, artists, and TV and film makers formed an ‘Adversary Culture’ as Lionel Trilling put it. It defined itself in terms of its opposition to what it first dismissed as ‘bourgeois’, middle-class culture, then as imperialism, then as a ‘patriarchy’, then as a racist dystopia, before finally turning against Western Civilization in general. Posing always as outsiders, this Intelligentsia came quickly to actually dominate the very culture they pretended to be opposing. As Daniel Bell observed at the time in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1974), they soon controlled “the publishing houses, museums, and galleries; the major news, picture, and cultural weeklies and monthlies, the theatre, the cinema, and the universities”. In the decades since, this stranglehold became ever tighter, culminating in the cultural auto-da-fés and Bonfires of the Vanities that we are presently enduring.

At the level of political critique conventional Marxism-Leninism has had a tremendous impact, as with multi-million-selling, A People’s History of the United States (1980), by Howard Zinn. This spawned a copy-cat Australian version, A People’s History of Australia Since 1788, deliberately published in 1988 to spoil the Bicentenary. 

See also The tendentious mendacity of Howard Zinn

This lumpen-Marxism was augmented by the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School and the very influential Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), copies of which were handed around in the Sixties like contraband Samizdat.  Its authors, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, claimed that Reason has not realized its Humanist and Enlightenment promise of liberation but had instead become a totalitarian force that links liberal democracy with Stalinism and Nazism as a form of totalitarianism (!) For them, this is epitomized by the heroine of the Marquis de Sade’s pornographic novel, Juliette (1798), “who exploits the power of rational thought as an instrument of sadistic domination and pleasure. Juliette enjoys the exquisite pleasures of destroying the civilization of the Enlightenment with the very weapons it has created”. (D. Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, 2000) It is a measure of the irresponsibility and superficiality of this type of radicalism that it makes ‘Reason’ the enemy and takes its evidence for its argument from pornographic novels by the Marquis de Sade.

It is at the level of the human person that the Intelligentsia made its anti-humanism explicit and it is here that the contrast with the historical Humanist tradition is so striking. According to this version of neo-Marxism, “’men’ do not make history, nor find their ‘truth’ or ‘purpose’ in it; history is a process without a subject.” (Kate Soper, Humanism and Anti-Humanism, 1986) Similarly, the communist theoretician (and wife-murderer), Louis Althusser, argued that Humanism is merely the ideology of the bourgeois revolution and capitalist society. According to him, history has no subject but simply charts the trajectory through time of economic forces and the relations of production, carrying the masses along with them.

Behind such anti-humanism was Claude Levi-Strauss, the inventor of Structuralism, which reduces human beings to place-markers in an infinite system of signs.  He especially denounced the “lawless humanism” that was allegedly destroying non-Western cultures and the ecological balance of the earth. The magnitude of his anti-humanism can be measured by his assertion that “the survival of [a single] species should be as precious to us as that of the entire corpus of a Michelangelo, a Rembrandt, a Rousseau, or a Kant”. (D. Pace, Claude Levi-Strauss: The Bearer of Ashes, 1983)

Meanwhile, the structuralist psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, insisted that the Western self is radically split, and that the Cartesian notion of a stable and integrated subject is the core, crippling illusion of Humanism. Subsequently, the post-structuralist philosopher, Michel Foucault, famously announced ‘the death of man’: “Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end”, he declared, “and as the structures that shape human knowledge shift, so ‘man’ will disappear, “erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (The Order of Things, 1966). Under the impact of such attacks, Humanism became “a code word for the impotent and reactionary values of the bourgeois literary canon builders of the 18th to 20th Centuries”, as one radical feminist put it. (M. Barrett, The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault, 1991)

According to this anti-humanist ideology, the Humanist pursuit of knowledge is illusory, because there is no fixed structure to the world and therefore there can be no final correspondence between that world and our knowledge of it. Similarly, there are no ‘essences’, no essential nature of anything, e.g., there is no ‘human nature’, and there is no ‘woman’ or ’man’ (as J.K. Rowling recently discovered to her cost). Reality is constructed and knowledge is reducible to the language via which this is accomplished. Moreover, language is merely conventional and subject to the willful exercise of power. Power and knowledge are therefore conflated and inter-changeable according to the formula made famous by Foucault – ‘Power/Knowledge’. Similarly, the world is only text and outside the text there is nothing, as Jacques Derrida insisted.

From this it follows that those who control language control reality, which is why the Left is so focused on words, signs, symbols, images, and language generally. In particular, it insists there are no settled ‘selves’ but only constructed identities, drawing on sexual fantasies and the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary popular culture. In academia, this mandates all sorts of subjects in feminist and queer theory, transgender studies, etc. It also underpins the concept of intersectionality, according to which a person is the ‘intersection’ of the sum total of a wide range of ‘identities’ (e.g., gender, race, class, body image, etc.), all of which are caught up in the play of ‘Power/Knowledge’ in an oppressive society.

So flimsy and fragile are these fashioned façades that they demand to be protected from real and imagined slights by the draconian use of state power, as with the Australian Human Rights Commission and similar state agencies. And such defensiveness is understandable, as these ‘snowflakes’ with their constructed personas hover over a existential Void, incredibly vulnerable to Reason, which is why it is demonized. Awaiting them is “the abyss of annihilation” brought by the inevitable collision with reality. (D. Lehman, Signs of the Times, 1991) It is this that makes those possessed by these illusions so paranoid and dangerous, as various people dragged before the AHRC Star Chamber have discovered.

So this is what has happened to the Humanities – its true crisis. A tradition some 750 years in the making has been invaded, pirated, debauched, and eventually hollowed out, leaving a shell within which a whole range of alien ideas have set up shop. Ensconced in tenured positions in our universities, their advocates play out their intellectual fantasies, imagining that they and their acolytes are infinitely plastic beings, floating about in a sea of desire, while they seek determinedly to destroy not only the Humanist Tradition but the entire civilization built around it. Tragically, it these people and their ideologies that now represent the Humanities.

What is the result? From a conservative perspective we hear a forlorn lament:

We live amidst the ruins of the great, 500 year epoch of Humanism. Around us is that colossal wreck. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those icy gales that regularly return to rip people out of the cozy intimacy of their daily lives and confront them with oblivion. (John Carroll, Humanism, 1993)

But what is now a wreck was for half a millennium “a huge and brilliantly lit metropolis of a culture” that hosted “the most sustained bout of philosophical, literary, artistic and musical wrestling known to man”. At stake in this Promethean struggle was “the future of the Western soul”, and the battle was lost.

But perhaps it hasn’t been finally lost; perhaps there is an opportunity for a counter-attack, as the products of the debauched teachings infecting our universities demonstrate their willful, nihilistic ignorance in the streets and on social media. Dressing up their iconoclasm as a moral posture, they are campaigning to destroy a civilization so they don’t have to learn about it. Probably the universities will have to be cut free and their academic ideologues left to wither on the vine. And meanwhile, in circles where the Western tradition and scholarship are still valued, the process of reclamation of Humanism and the Humanities can begin.

7 thoughts on “The True Crisis of the Humanities

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good article Mervyn. Roger Scruton covers most of these types in his book ‘Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, as well of course as Keith Windschuttle in his great book ‘The Killing of History’ written much earlier, so surely the responsible polies much have read it ? It makes me as mad as hell to read what these well educated types have done, and are doing to our cultural world. Fact is that pretty well all of them, if they ever met the ordinary man in the street, would probably be immediately recognised as the bad news types they really are….but not in academia apparently. The majority is still very much with the man in the street of course, but he doesn’t have the reins of our cultural carriage and probably doesn’t give it much thought, whereas the loonies do….amazing. What you closed with seems like a reasonable thing to me and of course it should be easy for the polies to somehow get rid of the destructive ideologues in the Public Universities, after all they’re not private and the Governments supplying the cash, yet even wheedling out a few comes across like pulling teeth, and they just don’t seem to be able to do it….why I wonder?

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    If the comments below are accepted please do not publish our email address as was done last time I had the temerity to post a comment. One of your regular commenters warned that doing so was inviting the trolls in.

    From two giants of theory and criticism; a glimmer of hope.

    Today the cornerstone of international law is the sacred, what is sacred is humanity. You should not kill. You should not be responsible for a crime against this sacredness, the sacredness of man as your neighbor . . . made by God or God made man . . . In that sense, the concept of crime against humanity is a Christian concept and I would think that there would be no such thing in the law today without the Christian heritage, the Abrahamic heritage, the biblical heritage.
    Jacques Derrida, “On Forgiveness: A Roundtable Discussion with Jacques Derrida,” moderated by Richard Kearny, in Questioning God (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2001), p.70

    “The difference between science and theology, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not.” He goes on in his book Reason, Faith and Revolution to argue that it makes an enormous difference to how one lives in the world if you see human beings as accidental beings rather than a sacred creation and gift of God.
    Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) p.37

    In addition to cutting loose the public universities, and we already have encouraging evidence of independent though in several new institutions, I recommend the breaking of the stranglehold that so-called state departments of education has over the curricula used in the independent primary and secondary school sector. There is now enough evidence to show that the mandated curricula as implemented by the states in Australia is failing students and our country.

  • Stephen Due says:

    In some ways there has been a parallel process of corruption in the teaching of Christianity in tertiary institutions and even in the churches.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Incidentally, it is worth noting that Humanism flourished in Christendom. I think the Christian context is important when considering the history of Humanism in the West. The universities in which Humanism flourished were Christian foundations. The ethical weaknesses of Humanism were tempered by the steel of Christian moral principles. Christianity provided a personal compass and spiritual motive power that Humanism lacked. Christianity provided political structures that Humanism could not provide. In terms of defending the Western tradition, it seems to me that a defense of Christianity is unavoidable.

  • DG says:

    The reason for the suppression of the Western traditions of self-examination, the place of the individual as a moral actor, and inquisitive enquiry is that they stand in the way of mind-numbing, name-calling inanities of totalitarianism.

  • Warty says:

    Stale threads and scattered shards.

    So leave the humanities to the universities
    Such hollowed out curdles of spumescence.
    For us the quest remains the same,
    To stand sentinel with seminal
    Studies now stilled forgotten name.

    Some talk of now frozen antiquities
    Yet such is the quirk of imagination
    I wonder if these be effigies
    Of pale ancient scholars
    Scarcely afloat on silent seas.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    “the structuralist psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, insisted that the Western self is radically split, and that the Cartesian notion of a stable and integrated subject is the core, crippling illusion of Humanism”

    I think most of us work hard to produce a stable and integrated subject, the self, with our imagination as our greatest consolation and asset and reason as something to be treasured. Too much disaggregation of the self produces the sorts of responses that we are seeing in the ‘communities’ that BLM antifa groups have carved out for emulation in some of the Democrat cities of the United States.

Leave a Reply